Be Content in Thanksgiving

Preacher, Pastor Jeremy Husby delivers a sermon entitled “Be Content in Thanksgiving” based on Philippians 4:10-13 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.

Delivered: on Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.

Those words, or something somewhat similar, were spreading like wildfire throughout ancient Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia Minor in the 1st Century. However, though they sound familiar to Christians who have read through the inspired words of Paul in the second lesson for today, they did not come from his pen, his mouth, or his mind. Unlike Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the words that were captivating the Roman Empire were not inspired of God.

Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.

Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher is credited with coming up with that phrase in particular; along with another insightful quip: It is not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.

It was not accidental that Paul’s words, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, sound almost as if Paul and Epictetus were cut from the same cloth.

One of the apostle’s apologetic strategies, his tools for defending and explaining the truths of Christianity, was to study the philosophers of the age and expand on their rudimentary understandings of how and why human beings exist.

For a few hundred years before Paul sent this letter to the Philippians, Stoic philosophers were sorting through those very questions. What is the point of life? Why are we here? What does this world offer to me to fill this insatiable desire to be content and satisfied and, finally, truly happy?

Paul learned the answer to that question. In keeping with his apologetic efforts, the word that Paul used to describe the emotional state and spiritual gift of contentment that he enjoyed isn’t used anywhere else in the Greek New Testament. It is, however, found over and again in the writings of the Stoics.
When Paul wrote, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, a much more literal translation of his words might read I have learned self- sufficiency whatever the circumstances.

Have you been to a bookstore recently? Or, rather, as you are seeking out your Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals over the weekend, take a look at what books are the most popular and best sellers among baby boomers and millennials, alike. The self-help sections have surged so much.

That’s because it isn’t just Stoics in the centuries just before and after Christ that are seeking happiness and fulfilment in life. Believers and unbelievers alike want the kind of self-sufficiency that Paul wrote about almost 2000 years ago. However, the secret of self-sufficiency that Paul learned is the difference between believers finally finding it and unbelievers continuing their search.

Paul had to learn that secret because, even as the philosophers posited, contentment is not a natural emotional state for human beings. That fact is something that you don’t have to learn, isn’t it? Even as you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal (tomorrow/today), with enough food to feed an army, will you feel satisfied? It could be something somewhat insignificant, like the turkey being a little dry or that your sister-in-law put too much pepper in the green bean casserole. Maybe you’d rather be watching the football game or be in a room with anyone other than your mother-in-law. Maybe it is that empty chair that still sticks out like a sore thumb, either because of the loss of a loved one or the one you are still looking to love.

Whatever it is, everything isn’t exactly the way that you want it. You might be happy, but it could be better. Or, maybe, you won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving at all. You might take the time, like you are for an hour today, to be thankful to God for all that you have but you’re not having a meal, there’s no family gathering, and your list of physical blessings to be thankful for is pretty short.

That feeling of discontent isn’t there simply because you are being ungrateful. That’s simply a symptom of the disease that affects the way that you perceive and receive the actions of your neighbors and the situations that surround you.

The reason that, by nature, you are discontent is because you are sinful. It is not outside influences that teach you how to have insatiable desires. That has been an inclination in human beings ever since Adam and Eve conceived their first child. Which means that the problem with finding self-sufficiency, that even the greatest philosophers couldn’t solve, is that your self is flawed.

But, if happiness doesn’t come from outside influences and it cannot come from within, where can it possibly be found? What is the secret?
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Paul’s secret isn’t so secret. It is the same thing that has been giving people strength for centuries. Strength cannot come from within you and it does not come from adapting your mind and heart to, or simply accepting, your particular circumstances. It is not understanding who you are. It is about understanding what Christ changed you into.

The secret that Paul learned by experience in his life, when he was blinded and, subsequently, when the scales fell from his eyes, was so much more than simply giving him rose-colored glasses to see the world differently.

Up until his conversion, Paul had been seeking to find contentment and satisfaction in pleasing God through his righteous acts and religious fervor. But, as he learned, he could never accomplish it on his own. He could never be good enough. Instead, Christ gave him the strength to be righteous in God’s sight by changing him from being a sinful enemy of God to being an innocent child of God.

Jesus did that by living a perfect life on this earth, never once falling for the Devil’s temptations to covet or be envious or greedy. In his divine self, without the flaws of sinful man, Jesus was content to leave his plentiful life in heaven to feel hunger on earth and sacrifice that life to pay for all of the times when Paul was covetous, envious, or greedy. With his precious blood, shed from the cross, he covered Paul’s imperfection completely so that, when God looked at Paul he only saw his own perfect Son, instead.

With Christ’s forgiveness on his mind, Paul was content with whatever situation he is placed in. Even if in jail, which is likely from where he wrote the book of Philippians, he sang praises to the one who redeemed him and gave him self-sufficiency in the life Christ made his.
Is Paul a good example for you to follow? Sure. But rather than focus on him being able to overcome any situation in life, focus on why he was able to do it; Christ gave him the strength.

Christ gives you the strength, too. He lived perfectly for you. He died in your place. Whether you are well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, Christ strengthened you to be a blood-bought child of God.

To paraphrase Epictetus, you can be sick and yet content, in peril and yet content, dying and yet content, in exile and content, in disgrace and content because in
Christ’s life and death, made yours by faith, your new self is sufficient for you. Amen.

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